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High Fidelity From 'Prince'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 1998

  Movie Critic


Prince of Egypt
Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt in "The Prince of Egypt." (DreamWorks)

Director:
Brenda Chapman; Steve Hickner
Cast:
Sandra Bullock;
Ralph Fiennes;
Danny Glover;
Jeff Goldblum;
Val Kilmer;
Steve Martin;
Helen Mirren;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Martin Short;
Patrick Stewart
Running Time:
1 hour, 39 minutes
PG
Contains intense but generally bloodless biblical scenes including a pillar of fire, plagues, pestilence, slavery, whipping, murder, infanticide and the corpse of a young boy
Oscar:
Original Song ("When You Believe")
"The Prince of Egypt" opens with dramatic clouds and portentous chords. As gaunt Hebrew slaves bend to the task of toting several-ton construction stones up the steps of the pyramids, the lash of their Egyptian overlords stings the flesh on their backs. Lyrics to the charming work-song they intone go something like this: "Whip on my shoulder, sweat on my brow."

("Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go" this ain't.)

True to the Exodus-inspired origins of this tale of Moses, DreamWorks Pictures' "The Prince of Egypt" is no walk in the park. The disturbingly grown-up animated film version of the biblical story of bondage and release is dark, more than a bit morbid and boasts a God with a rumbling basso-profundo voice like Darth Vader's. God may be Love in the New Testament, but this Old Testament divinity you don't want to mess with, lest he smite ye with the full force of his wrath.

All of which begs the question: Whom is this picture intended for? It's one thing to hear Bible stories in Sunday school, quite another to see a river of crimson blood and a ghostly death-cloud that picks off kids like cockroaches illustrated in lavish color. The story is a great one – after all, as an on-screen title points out, it's the basis of faith for millions of people around the world. But the idea of making a cartoon out of such a heavy drama is frankly strange.

As the epic begins, we see a cute-as-a-button Cabbage-Patch Moses hidden in a basket and placed in the river by his Hebrew mother Yocheved (the voice of Ofra Haza) in order to save his life from murderous Egyptian soldiers. Next thing you know the baby is floating down a white-water rapid, narrowly escaping the snapping jaws of crocodiles. Finally, he comes to rest by the palace of the Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart), where he is raised to adulthood along with the Pharaoh's son Rameses (Ralph Fiennes).

Although he is treated like a prince, the now beef-cakey Moses (Val Kilmer) comes to suspect that he doesn't belong with the royals after a chance street encounter with his long-lost brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam (Jeff Goldblum and Sandra Bullock). Following a vision – wherein bas-relief stone carvings stunningly come to life and animate the history of his oppressed people – he resolves to renounce his life of privilege for the privations of the desert.

While in self-imposed exile, Moses falls in love with the sexy Midianite shepherdess Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) and marries her. The infamous burning bush soon materializes to tell him to go back and free his people. Aided in his argument by a barrage of very persuasive plagues including slimy frogs, destructive locusts and rather gruesome open sores, Moses struggles to convince the new Pharaoh Rameses of his very simple demand: "Let my people go."

Of course some artistic license has been taken with the source material, but overall "The Prince of Egypt" is remarkably faithful to the Bible, so much so that that fidelity is both to its credit and its detriment. Having taken pains to treat the biblical account of Moses with gravity, DreamWorks is to be commended for avoiding frivolity. Still, the yarn is a complicated one – not to mention scary – and many younger children will undoubtedly be confused by its plot intricacies and frightened by its numerous scenes of pain and suffering.

Grown up folks and kids with stronger stomachs, on the other hand, should enjoy the high drama and rich suspense, although those expecting a little comic relief from Steve Martin and Martin Short as temple magicians Hotep and Huy will be disappointed. Their show-stopping musical number, "Playing With the Big Boys," in which the Egyptian gods show off their miracles, is the best of the songs by Stephen Schwartz, but it's not exactly what you would call funny. At other times, the bombastic but less memorable score can overwhelm both dialogue and lyrics.

As a rule, the drawn and computer-animated imagery is top notch and seamlessly integrated, but the central characters' tawny complexions and the often chiaroscuro lighting sometimes obscure all but the whites of their eyes and their pearl-perfect teeth.

Clocking in at a little over an hour and a half, "The Prince of Egypt" is not for the fidgety either, although the film's length is less of a problem than the fact that it postpones catharsis until virtually its final minutes.

From an aesthetic standpoint, that wait for the film's emotional payoff can seem overly protracted, but then again Rome and the pyramids weren't built in a day – and neither was the emancipation of the Hebrew people.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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